Christmas Day 2018
by The Reverend Jeffrey C. Johnson
Gospel: John 1:1-14
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Our gospel from John really lives in the world of ideas and makes us think and reflect. It’s almost like poetry. In fact, it is poetic. Our poem here has three characters:
- The Word or in the Greek LOGOS
Our first character is the WORD and let me make clear that our English is limited here. Logos is the GREEK term for not only the term WORD, but MIND, SPEECH, COMMUNICATION, OR even RATIONALE. It’s a hard concept to latch on to, I must admit. But however, I don’t think LOGOS means the WORD or a BIBLE floating in outer space.
Our second character is God and essentially, I think LOGOS is essentially the mind of God. And with this passage, God reveals himself. In fact, most scholars agree that the LOGOS begins before for the beginning of time. This, I like to think, is the big bang. This is where everything begins.
Our third character, John the Baptist, is inserted strangely into the text here but we have to remember that John the Baptist’s role is always to point to Jesus who is the WORD, the LOGOS incarnate or in the flesh. As the gospel puts it John is a witness to the Light.
I failed to mention two other characters that are not supernatural beings or humans in this poem: Light and Darkness. Now, I think that we here can all agree that we all understand these ideas. The LOGOS is a very hard thing to wrap one’s head around but we all get light and darkness. And wintertime is traditionally a season of darkness and we just got finished celebrating the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice. It is no coincidence that the celebration of Jesus’ birth is simultaneous to the shortest day of the year. Because, Jesus brings light into a dark world. Jesus brings order where there once was chaos and Jesus brings hope where there once was chaos.
But first let us consider the concept of chaos versus order or even darkness versus light.
In London, on December 17 1933, ADVENT IV, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer preaches on the following gospel text: The Song of Mary, the Magnificat. “God has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but sent the rich away empty.”
From his pulpit across the sea, it is impossible to believe Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not have his eye on Germany when he spoke:
“We must be clear about how, in the face of the manger, we shall think about what is high and what is low in human life in the future. … God is not mocked. It is not a light thing to God that every year we celebrate Christmas and do not take it seriously. His word holds and is certain. When he comes in his glory and power into the world in the manger, he will put down the mighty from their seats, unless ultimately, ultimately they repent. … Who of us would want to celebrate Christmas correctly? Who will finally lay at the manger all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all pride, and all selfishness? Who is content to be lowly and let God alone be high? Who sees the glory of God in the humble state of the child in the manger? (From God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas. Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
These are harsh words on Christmas Day. I should be speaking to you of peace on earth and goodwill to all humankind. I should be getting through this liturgy to get us to our dinner parties, our presents, and our celebrations. This is some hard news to swallow. But these words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Martin Luther King of Germany and Lutherans, were tough to hear in the 1930’s as well as now, eighty some odd years later.
Bonhoeffer is renowned in his time as a theologian in both Germany and the United States and later would be critically and unsuccessfully involved in an assassination plot against Adolf Hitler. Tragically, Bonhoeffer’s actions land him in a Nazi prison and later result in his ignominious execution in April 1945. Bonhoeffer always challenges his students, his congregants, and his readers with the concept of God’s grace, but moreover to the cheapening and insincerity of what he calls “cheap grace.” Grace that costs us nothing. Grace that is easy obtained and easily forgotten. Grace that does not involve repentance, that is, grace that does not require us to turn around. And finally Grace that leaves nothing at the manger.
But it is God’s grace that we experience on Christmas Day with a manger not full of the Logos, the mysterious Word of God before the beginning of time. But we find a manger containing a baby. Yes, a baby who is God in the flesh. A baby fills the manger, not a visitor from another planet, not an idea, not a spirit, but a BABY. So God shows up in a manger, a trough for animals. And we follow a God that asks us to put those things of which we are the proudest at this manger-trough.
What are we to bring and lie down at this manger and follow this baby? According to Bonhoeffer, we leave our honor, our reputations, vanity, pride, and selfishness. We become humble allowing God to take center place. And only then will we see the light and the glory of God when we leave all this at the manger.
These words of Bonhoeffer are surprising, tough, and humbling for me this year in this season that requires so much celebration, energy, happiness. In fact, they left me a little speechless at first. What we find in the manger is not cheap or simplistic. What we find in the manger is certainly a baby but in the manger we also the find the Cross. Because with this grace, this celebration, this miraculous birth, we find a costly sacrifice. But with this sacrifice we find also find joy, hope, and light. We also find a message this sad, weary needs to hear not only on Christmas but every day.
So, you may ask, what else may I bring to the manger? After I have given up all these things that keep me from the manger, what may I give the baby in the manger? For me, I think the simplest answer is found one of my favorite of all Christmas Carols, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” written by Christina Rossetti, a renowned 19th century British poet.
“In the Bleak Midwinter”
In the bleak midwinter,
frosty wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron,
water like a stone;
snow had fallen, snow on snow,
snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter,
Heaven cannot hold him,
nor earth sustain;
heav’n and earth shall flee away
when he comes to reign;
in the bleak midwinter
a stable place sufficed
the Lord God almighty,
What can I give him,
poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wise man
I would do my part;
yet what I can give him—
give my heart.
Text: Christina Georgina Rossetti, 1830-1894
I pray for both you and myself that we’re able to leave the things that get in our way at the side of the manger. I pray that we stop and really look inside the manger and see the baby, the God in flesh who loves truly, madly, deeply. I pray that God shows up for us continually in most unlikely, miraculous places. And finally, I pray that God always shows up in our hearts. AMEN.